The French R makes you sound French and the only way to master it is through pronunciation practice.
The rrrrr sound is a distinctive sound of the French language. It gives satisfaction to those who can pronounce it effortlessly and nightmares to those who can’t.
I can say so because I have been through it.
Even if your speach is fluent, that is you understand and you speak without efforts, there might still be some slight differences in the way you pronounce certain French sounds.
Normally, anyone knowing that you are a foreigner won’t point those out, but it is indispensable if you want your French to sound, well … French.
And what makes you sound French ? Of course, the French guttural rrrrrrrr…. sound.
Why the French R is Important ?
Your French nasal sounds may be awful, your stress and intonation despicable, but as long as you are able to pronounce the French “r” you can feel French. It’s just so distinctively French that nothing beats it, but that is just my opinion….
With a correct pronunciation, you will avoid some sarcastic remarks too, people are people after all, whatever the nationality I guess …
Why did I create these exercises ?
I’m not French myself, so ever sine I came to France I wanted to learn the French language and sound French too. I just couldn’t stand the spiteful remarks and the way people would look at me if I started to speak with a hard “R”, the way the people from the eastern countries often do…
I thought that if your mouth muscles produce the sounds of your native language that your brain is subconsciously telling it to do, then all you need to do is to convince your brain to do the same but for new sounds.
And how you do that ?
By repeating the specific sounds many times. That is how you develop the muscles in your mouth to produce the sounds and get your brain accustomed to hearing them and producing them.
I don’t think it’s going to become 100% subconscious as with your mother tongue, but it will significantly improve your pronunciation.
That is why it is easier for the people already living in the country where the language is spoken since they hear and produce the specific sounds (or at least something that is close to it) on everyday basis.
However, it is wrong to think that this is the sine qua non condition to an adequate pronunciation. Far from it !
How many people have you met who have been living abroad for ages and still struggle to sound more like a native ? Lots of them.
Unfortunately, there are people who have been living for decades in a foreign country and they can’t even speak the language of their new home country. But that’s a different story, since there are many factors that must be taken into account: human factor, family relations, psychology of the individual, social contact, etc.
And this is not because they are less gifted or less smart. They just don’t know how to learn and didn’t take time to work on it.
That’s why I like to think of second language acquisition as very similar to physical workout, especially nowadays when the world is going fast and you need to (and want to) learn fast.
And this is particularly true in the case of pronunciation, since your muscles are involved in the process. It’s just you won’t come across people doing these exercises at your local gym .
How to produce the French “R” sound ?
It is a sound that is produced in your throat.
What you should do is to gurgle as if you were cleaning your throat, or trying to scratch your itching pallet with the compressed air coming from your lungs.
The French “R” sound is what the specialist call a uvular fricative.
You need to have the feeling that the back of your pallet is working slightly and your tongue should stay motionless.
It is very close to the sound of snoring on exhalation (when you breath out). You can try this out.
It is very easy to inhale the air and make the palet vibrate. It is slightly more difficult to do the same on exhalation, but this is where you will find your French “R”.
Of course, this is only an approximation ! Your gurgled “R” will sound a bit artificial and forced at the beginning.
To pronounce the French “R” correctly, you will have to practice it a bit to make it smooth.
You should not worry too much about pronouncing it correctly, as in the real speech you don’t pay that much attention to one particular sound.
That is also the secret of mastering this particular sound. Many learners of French commit the mistake, quite naturally, to push it a bit too far.
They overdo it and it makes them sound weird. This kind of behaviour is quite normal.
That’s why some of the learners give the whole thing up and either pronounce the “r” as the would in their native language (à l’américaine (the English style) ou à la russe (the Spanish style) , or they keep overdoing it. The solution lies, as usual, in between.
The types of “R”
You also need to know that the French “R” does not always sound the same way. Sometimes it is more or less audible. It may depend on such things like:
- the speaker,
- the speed of speech,
- the place of the sound in relation to other syllables in the sentence,
- stress that the speaker puts on that particular sound or others
- or other things that I am not clever enough to enumerate …
But you don’t need to analyse all that in your speech, it is just good to know. With a bit of practice you will come to the same conclusion.
This is not the reference however and most of the French people don’t speak like that.
How to practice the French “R” ?
In order to have an impeccable French “R” pronunciation, you must speak French and listen to a lot of French all the time ! Yeah, right….
That would take ages and would cost you a lot of frustration along the way !
In order to improve a particular aspect of something, you need to make a conscious and concentrated effort over a given period of time to accelerate its improvement.
In our case, you need to focus on that particular aspect of the French pronunciation (that is the French R sound), exhaust your muscles (yes, your mouth and throat have muscles too !), by repeating the sound in exercises, exaggerating it even, and then smooth it out in speech.
Do you remember that gurgling and snoring I told you about ? You take it and you repeat it continuously with all of the French vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u). You start slowly.
With some practice you can make it faster so you can produce that uvular fricative “r” sound effortlessly.
- ra ra ra
- re re re
- ré ré ré
- ri ri ri
- ro ro ro
- ru ru ru
With nasal vowels as with an, in, un, on.
In this exercise not only will you practice your French R sound but you will also practice the other distinctive French sounds, that is the nasal vowels like an [ã], in [ɛ̃], and on [õ].
- an [ã] : grand, franc, ranger
- in [ɛ̃] : brin, fringues, ringard
- on [õ] : rond, front, gronder
Try to do that exercise whenever you have time (in a car, in the elevator, in your shower, etc). Once a day for a minute for one week would be perfect.
The other trick is to practice with words. The ones below will really muscle your vocal apparatus. Some of them can be really hard.
They will not only make you work your French “R”, but also some other important sounds associated with o, e, é, er, an, u.
- rajouter, râler, racorder
- regarder, recevoir, redire
- répéter, réussir, récupérer
- rire, ricaner, riche
- robert, robinet, romantique
- rural, rustique, russe
Buy the ebook: “Master the French R Sound”
Do you want to take your French pronunciation to a higher, native like level ? Here is how !
The best advice I can give you as a conclusion is to work hard your exercises everyday for a week exaggerating the sounds while practicing them and not to worry too much about it in the actual speech.
In fact, forget it is there and that it doesn’t sound very “RRR” like the real French “r”.
If you concentrate too much on pronouncing the French “R” correctly, not only will it sound strange but it will also wear you out, make your speech less fluent and natural and you will feel quickly exhausted.
That’s right, speaking a foreign language is kind of a strain for your brain (though beneficial and giving lots of satisfaction) so you’d better take it easy concentrate of the fun part.
Should you have any suggestions concerning how to pronounce and improve the French “R”, share it with me in the comments !